Appreciating Friendship in Public Spaces

My wife, Sheryl, and I recently returned from a wonderful trip to Alaska. About a year ago, when our friends Jim and Susan Cantor visited us in Madison, I realized that it had been way too long (nearly 30 years in my case, and fully 30 years in my wife’s case) since we had visited them in their home outside Anchorage, Alaska. Jim and I went to high school together. He and I also lived together for a year in college, and spent a couple of months hitchhiking around Europe and Morocco in 1979. Jim, Susan and I lived together in a farm house outside of Ann Arbor, in 1980-81. But since that time, living so far from each other, we have only seen each other occasionally, though we stay in touch by phone and e-mail, maintaining our decades long close friendship.

When I decided it was long past time to visit Jim and Susan in Alaska, I asked another dear friend, Jeremy Firestone, whom I went to high school and college with (he was my freshman dorm roommate), to  join us. He lives in Delaware, and like me, he had not been to Alaska in a very long time. It had also been years since Jim, Jeremy and I had spent time together.

Upon hearing about our plans, Susan encouraged us to include our wives and partners, so although my wife had not camped in about 11 years, and Jeremy’s partner, Christine, had never camped, Jim and Susan assured us that they would plan a trip that we would all enjoy, so Sheryl and Christine agreed to join our trip.

As good friends do, even though we had not seen each other in quite awhile, we all fell into an easy rapport, and we made Christine, who had not met the rest of us before, feel as comfortable as possible. She and Sheryl were real troopers during our 3 day/2 night camping trip at Spencer Lake-a stunningly beautiful glacial lake in the Chugach National Forest (which is the size of the state of New Hampshire), only accessible by train and hiking, and despite cool temperatures and rain, they thoroughly enjoyed the immense beauty, hiking, and kayaking.

The Spencer Lake group campsite built and maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, and therefore supported by our tax dollars as well as permit fees, is one of the nicest campsites I have ever enjoyed. As pictured above, there is a large picnic area with 3 large picnic tables (since the group campsite can support up to 30 campers), posts for hanging tarps and perhaps the most beautiful campfire ring I have ever seen, with huge pieces of granite showing beautiful quartz seams running through each stone.

The campsite also had lovely areas for each tent, an easy to use pump to get plentiful clean and delicious water from the underground aquifer, bear boxes to keep bears out of campers’ food and garbage, and a well maintained outhouse, all of which made camping far easier for all of us, including the less experienced campers.

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Previous campers made this lovely spiral of stones which welcomed us to our tent site.

As we sat down to enjoy this stunning slice of the earth’s beauty surrounded by friends, I posed the question to my fellow campers: “What percentage of campers who enjoy this campsite do you think appreciate that this is public land supported by taxpayer dollars managed by the government?” We came to the consensus that most campers simply took this well maintained campsite for granted and failed to appreciate the role of tax dollars and the government in allowing them to enjoy this beauty. In fact, given the generally conservative political environment in Alaska, Jim ventured that most of those camping at Spencer Lake would be highly critical of government and urge a smaller role for it.

One of the ironies of my entire career as a civil rights lawyer, is that I have regularly sued government agencies on behalf of my clients for failing to do their job according to the law. However, that does NOT mean that I fail to appreciate the critical role of government in so many aspects of every single person’s life. Everywhere we look, we see the impact of government: roads, schools, police, fire protection, and parks, to name just a few.

Perhaps government simply fails to market itself appropriately. It would not have bothered me at all if the Forest Service had posted a small sign at the campground reminding campers that their tax dollars funded this beautiful site, and that the U.S. Forest Service built and maintained it. Similar signage could remind users of the benefits we all enjoy from our government on a daily basis.

Of course, this does not mean that I will stop criticizing, and even suing the government, when it fails to do its job properly. But my criticism and advocacy will be to push government to do a better job, when it falls short, not to simply go away, as so many ill-informed citizens may prefer.

Tomorrow, we have primary elections in Wisconsin, and in November important national mid-term elections will take place. The first place to show your appreciation for government is to cast your vote for a better government to serve us all well.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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